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This is what makes Manhattan Manhattan

By Michael Schuman

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26 2013 3:10 p.m. MDT

Manhattan's Times Square

Michael Schuman

The purists howled more than a decade ago when New York City was accused of Disneyizing Times Square. The peep shows and prostitutes were gone and the funk and grit were replaced by family fare. And with these changes came a friendlier New York. Cab drivers volunteered to be less abrasive. Visitors are no longer begging for a mugging when perusing a guide book on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street. Signs warn of $350 fines for unnecessary car horn blowing.

For those of you who have never been to New York City, or who have not visited for years, here is our list of 10 venues that make New York New York.

  1. The must-see
Just as any visitor to France would be remiss to skip the Eiffel Tower, every city has a site that must not be missed, no matter how many tourists. In New York it is Times Square. The neon jungle assaults visitors’ eyes like a visual sonic boom. The man-made canyon surrounded by lights, computer images and theater posters seemingly the size of Yosemite’s El Capitan is overwhelming.

High above Times Square is the world’s most famous Waterford crystal ball. Every New Year’s Eve, from the days of Guy Lombardo to those of Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest, partiers have gathered here. Today, the ball slides 141 feet down a flagpole atop One Times Square at midnight, Dec. 31. What you won’t see is any remnant of the once flourishing sex trade here, unless you count the sultry green M&M at megastore M&M’s World.

2. The view

The obvious choice is the Empire State Building, but it is rivaled today by the Top of the Rock with its open observation deck and view of something one can‘t see from the top of the Empire State Building — the Empire State Building itself, poking its needle-like tower into the ether. The Top of the Rock is on the 70th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and opened in November 2005 following a 20-year closure. On a sparkling day the view extends about 30 miles. Exhibits and vintage photography downstairs tell the tale of Rockefeller Center, including the famous picture of workmen casually eating lunch as they sit on a girder 66 stories high.

For those who want to go to the Empire State Building observatory to say they did, the view doesn’t disappoint. The 102nd floor observation deck is, after all, more than 30 stories higher than the Top of The Rock and on the proverbial clear day the view similarly extends 80 miles. A staff member is stationed on the observation deck to identify and tell the story of almost every building within sight.

3. The standout museum

Every big city has at least one monumental museum; New York has three. To avoid visual burnout, you might plan to visit one or two and accept the fact that one cannot comfortably see everything in one day. The vast Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts an eclectic mix, from art of ancient Egypt to that of medieval Europe to 19th century European impressionism, and we learned that a suit of armor that seems custom built for an NFL center was actually owned by an overweight, aging King Henry VIII.

The Museum of Modern Art is home to renowned works including Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Salvador Dali’s “The Persistance of Memory” and Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” In the cavernous American Museum of Natural History, expect to come face to bone with skeletons of myriad prehistoric creatures. The gallery devoted to North American mammals and Milstien Hall of Ocean Life are also among visitors’ favorite stops.

4. The funky side of town

Where else but Greenwich Village? The Café Wha at 115 Macdougal, where Bob Dylan and Bill Cosby passed the hat in the early 1960s, still hosts up and comers, while Stanford White’s commanding arch in Washington Square Park watches over the scene like a silent sentinel. The row houses and brownstones make this an otherworldly setting compared to the skyscrapers of Midtown. Incense wafts through the air in cozy shops where merchandise includes vintage clothing and vinyl records — remember vinyl records? New York is a prime city for walking, and Greenwich Village is the best neighborhood to get lost in.

5. How the top 1% lives

Head to Fifth Avenue in Midtown. Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Prada and Gucci all maintain stores there between East 49th and East 59th streets. We decided to check out nearly all the above brands at the department store for the rich and famous: Saks Fifth Avenue, where a $3,500 Gucci purse is standard fare. For browsers, the women’s shoe department on the eighth floor, with its light and spacious décor and shoes by Jimmy Choo and Oscar de la Renta, is the most popular stop. Don’t expect snooty clerks looking down their noses at you, like the restaurant host in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off." The staff was exceedingly friendly even though they had to know that Saks’ wares are well beyond our budget. Yet I was even encouraged to try on outerwear and sports coats. For a couple of minutes I was high society.

6. How the rest lived

People who lived a century ago in the tenement at 97 Orchard St. on the city’s Lower East Side couldn’t wait to get out. Today, people can’t wait to get in. A three-room apartment measuring a few hundred square feet was home to Polish immigrant Harris Levine, his wife and extensive family in 1898. Levine also ran a simple textile business here. Our guide asked if we’d want to live or work here. Why not? How about the claustrophobia, the innumerable odors, the intense summer heat in these days before screen windows? Any why yes? Well, the commute is short.

The Tenement Museum preserves this building where a human mosaic of families lived from the 1860s until 1935. Standard guided tours offer insight into the lives of German, Italian, Irish and eastern European families, but living history tours are also offered; ask teenage Greek Sephardic Jew Victoria Confino how it was sharing a bedroom the size of a Toyota with five brothers. Reservations are highly recommended.

7. The hidden gem

Apologies for the oxymoron, but it doesn’t take long to find hidden gems in this city filled with small museums and historic sites. Our favorite is the birthplace of national historic icon Theodore Roosevelt, officially Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. A 25-minute-long biographical film, a guided tour, TR‘s personal possessions and 60 percent original furnishings in the reconstructed brownstone home tell the story of a wimpy, asthmatic child who grew up to be a robust outdoorsman and larger than life 26th president.

A walk through the home at 28 East 20th Street also offers a surprising look at the spaciousness of New York’s narrow brownstones. Based on Dutch canal houses, brownstones like this are much longer than wide. This one offers up a stunning 4,500 square feet of living space.

8. Behind the scenes tour

In the nation’s media capital, it makes sense to take in the NBC Experience, a walking tour through NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center. Depending on production schedules, visitors enter one to four studios. The most common reaction from visitors entering Studio 8H, home of "Saturday Night Live," concerns its diminutive size. Near the tour’s end, two volunteers become Brian Williams and Al Roker, anchoring faux news and weather reports as a full green screen is transformed into a map of the nation. Reservations are highly recommended.

9. The 9-11 Memorial

Mist and rain shrouded the memorial when we visited, but it was appropriate. Names of the victims, arranged by group (flight passengers, rescuers, World Trade Center office workers) are inscribed in bronze parapets surrounding pools set inside the massive footprints of the two towers. Cascading into the pools are 30-foot waterfalls. One World Trade Center, 1,776 feet high, loomed behind our shoulders. One must go through a maze of security to get here, but that in itself is a lingering legacy of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida-operated massacre of nearly 3,000 people. Advance tickets are necessary.

10. Only in New York

There's loads to choose from, but we pick the theater. There exists more than 30 Broadway theaters, as well as off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters. Innumerable ways exist to avoid paying full ticket prices. TKTS booths at Times Square and downtown offer discounted tickets, but lines in busy seasons can be long (www.tdf.org). Student rush and standing-room tickets, usually costing $25 to $35 each, are often available a few hours before curtain time. Each theater sets its own policies. Sometimes a student ID is not needed (http://studentrush.org).

One can also get discounts via online ticket clubs offering free membership such as www.playbill.com, www.theatermania.com and www.BroadwayBox.com. The Great White Way may conjure up images of theatergoers garbed in their best threads, but when we recently saw "Newsies" at the Nederlander Theater, audience members wore everything from sport coats to jeans.

Further information

Times Square www.timessquarenyc.org

Top of the Rock, (212) 698-2000; (877) NYC-ROCK www.topoftherocknyc.com

Empire State Building, (877) 692-8439 www.esbnyc.com

Metropolitan Museum of Art, (212) 535-7710 www.metmuseum.org

Museum of Modern Art, (212) 708-9400 www.moma.org

American Museum of Natural History, (212) 769-5200 www.nmnh.org

Greenwich Village, www.nycgv.com

Fifth Avenue www.visit5thavenue.com

The Tenement Museum (877) 97-LESTM www.tenement.org

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, (212) 260-1616 www.nps.gov/thrb

NBC Studio Tour, (212) 664-7174 www.NBCExperienceStore.com

9/11 Memorial, (212) 266-5211 www.911memorial.org

General New York City information: (212) 484-1200 http://nycgo.com

Lodging: The price of most low-budget hotels in New York will get you a luxury suite in Dayton. That in mind, a company called Apple Core Hotels administers five Manhattan economy name brand hotels for modest prices — at least by Big Apple standards. These include La Quinta Inn, Red Roof Inn, Super 8, Comfort Inn and Ramada Inn with doubles ranging from $139 to $270 per night, excluding holidays and other special events. All include complementary continental breakfasts and other amenities. Reservations: (800) 567-7720. www.applecorehotels.com

For bed and breakfasts, consider: www.citylightsnewyork.com (212) 737-7049, hosted rooms generally range from $85-$160 per night; apartments range from $125 to three-story townhouses at $800 per night; three-night minimum stay at all properties; www.bedandbreakfast.com (800) 462-2632, rooms generally range from $175-$500, minimum rental is two nights or more depending on the individual property’s policy.

Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975, and received a MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at mschuman@ne.rr.com.

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